Lee Daniels’ The Butler, starring Forest Whitaker as a White House servant with an inside view of every President from Eisenhower to Reagan, got the Forest Bump. The fictionalized biopic of presidential butler Eugene Allen won the weekend at North American theaters with $25 million, according to preliminary estimates from its distributor, the Weinstein Co. Three other wide-release debuts fared less well. Kick-Ass 2 got canned, Jobs was terminated and Paranoia persecuted. These movies’ sponsors will be dining not at the White House but at Wendy’s.
[UPDATE: In the actual weekend grosses issued Monday, Lee Daniels’ The Butler finished at $24.6 million, about $400,000 below its Sunday estimate. Kick-Ass 2 totaled $13.3 million, dropping to fifth place behind Disney’s Planes, which earned $13.4 million.]
On its way to a win, The Butler sidestepped a few rug bumps, including co-star Oprah Winfrey’s fracas with a Zurich saleslady over a pricey handbag and the Weinstein Co.’s wrangle with Warner Bros. over the movie’s title. The disputes simply heightened audience awareness of the film: 72% of Fandango customers said that Oprah’s involvement made them more interested in seeing The Butler, and 40% of early attendees said they heard about the movie through reports of the title fight. The PG-13 picture also wasn’t hurt by the approaching 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech at the 1963 March on Washington, and of The Butler’s implicit happy ending of a black man not just in the White House pantry but at the Oval Office desk: Harvey Weinstein’s good friend Barack Obama.
Aside from Winfrey as the butler’s wife and David Oyelowo as their more activist son, this Downton Abbey at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue boasts a Who’s Who — or, when they first appear in heavy historical makeup, a Who’s That? — of movie royalty: Robin Williams as Ike, James Marsden as JFK, Liev Schreiber as LBJ, John Cusack as Nixon, and Alan Rickman and Jane Fonda as Ronald and Nancy Reagan. It’s a speed-read mixture of PBS’s American Experience docs and HBO’s political biopics (Danny Strong, author of The Butler script, also wrote HBO’s Sarah Palin takedown, Game Change).
(MORE: Fact vs. Fiction in The Butler)
But the movie this one really wants to invoke is The Help, which opened two years ago to a similar first-weekend take ($26 million) on its way to a $170 million domestic total, becoming the top grosser of the next year’s nine Oscar nominees for Best Picture. Both films, set during the civil rights struggle of the 1960s, aimed their promotion at faith-based black communities. The targeting for The Butler paid off: the first-weekend demographics were 39% African American, 60% female and 76% over the age of 35.
(MORE: Mary Pols Reviews The Help)
Receiving an A in the CinemaScore poll of early audiences — the popular equivalent of a Presidential Medal of Freedom — and largely positive reviews, The Butler will earn back its modest $30 million production cost by the end of the month. The only question is if the film will keep the dream alive until it arrives at Weinstein’s White House: the Motion Picture Academy stage at the climax of Oscar night.
Fanboy and critical buzz preceded the 2010 opening of Kick-Ass, which then deflated the hype with an underwhelming $19.8 million its first weekend. So Kick-Ass 2’s $13.57 million debut, and its fourth-place finish behind the big August comedy hit We’re the Millers and the sci-fi parable Elysium, has to be under-underwhelming. Budgeted at $28 million and gleaning a so-so B-plus CinemaScore, the R-rated movie attracted the standard action-movie crowd — 63% male, 58% under 25 — but in smaller numbers than Universal, its distributor, must have hoped. Kick-Ass 2 thus joins that crowded summer genre: Sequels We Didn’t Want to See (Red 2, The Smurfs 2, Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters and, in a way, Elysium), which is only marginally distinguishable from another category, Sequels We Didn’t Need But Saw Anyway (The Hangover Part III, Grown Ups 2 and The Wolverine).
(MORE: Corliss Reviews The Wolverine)
Then there’s Steve Jobs, as played by his hunkier lookalike Ashton Kutcher — that should have lured some people to the box office. Fewer than a million, it turns out. The first Jobs biopic (another, scripted by Aaron Sorkin, basked on the Walter Isaacson biography, is due later) earned just $6.7 million and a dismissive CinemaScore of B-minus from an audience that skewed 53% male and 59% over 25. Since Kutcher’s Jobs cost only $12 million to make, this opening gross will cue neither pleasure nor panic among its angels.
(MORE: Mary Pols Reviews Jobs)
The big moping will be heard from the producers of Paranoia, a showcase for 23-year-old Hunger Games hunk Liam Hemsworth. Co-starring Harrison Ford and Gary Oldman, and budgeted at $35 million, the thriller earned a piffling $3.5 million, finishing in 13th place, and received a scalding C CinemaScore. It’s all but official now: there will be no Paranoia 2.
Here are the Sunday estimates of this weekend’s top-grossing pictures in North American theaters, as reported by Box Office Mojo:
1. The Butler, $25 million, first weekend
2. We’re the Millers, $17.8 million; $69.5 million, second week
3. Elysium, $13.6 million; $55.9 million, second week
4. Kick-Ass 2, $13.57 million, first weekend
5. Planes, $13.1 million; $45.1 million, second week
6. Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters, $8.4 million; $38.9 million, second week
7. Jobs, $6.7 million, first weekend
8. 2 Guns, $5.6 million; $59.2 million, third week
9. The Smurfs 2, $4.6 million; $56.9 million, third week
10. The Wolverine, $4.4 million; $120.5 million, fourth week